Pinto ready to take his best shot at Senators camp after unique road to NHL

Ottawa Senators' Shane Pinto, left, celebrates a goal with teammate Tim Stützle against the Montreal Canadiens during first period NHL action in Ottawa on Wednesday, March 5, 2021. Sean Kilpatrick/ THE CANADIAN PRESS

As an advocate of diversification in youth sport, I love hearing pro athletes like Ottawa Senators centre Shane Pinto share stories of how they weren’t always the star athlete on their triple-A team.

Growing up in Long Island, N.Y., Pinto played nearly all of his minor hockey for the Tier 2 Brooklyn Aviators -- a modest, early flight plan that ultimately led him to soar among the three finalists for the 2021 Hobey Baker Award as the top college hockey player in the United States.

Pinto, playing for the University of North Dakota, was the first unanimous pick as player of the year in the history of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). Ultimately, the Hobey Baker went to Cole Caufield, whom you may have seen light up the NHL playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens last spring and summer.

This fall, Pinto and Caufield will resume their rivalry, but now in the Atlantic Division of the NHL, where the Habs and Sens will get after each other in a big way.

For Pinto, who doesn’t turn 21 until November, his first full NHL season will be the culmination of a long and varied road, and a childhood that included lots of golf, baseball and hockey -- if not always at the highest level.

“I played one year for the (Tier 1) Long Island Gulls, but I was mostly with the Brooklyn Aviators growing up,” Pinto said. “I wasn’t really good enough to play Tier 1, so, I was always with Brooklyn -- and it was awesome. I loved it there.”

Repeat memo to minor hockey parents: making the triple-A or Tier 1 team is not vital as far as a child’s competitive future.

“It’s crazy how it works, but it’s true, everyone is different,” Pinto says. “It doesn’t matter how you start, it’s a marathon and that has been my journey -- definitely a marathon.”

Pinto is so mature and well-spoken I found myself double-checking his age at the end of the interview. OK, yes, he really is just 20.

Not surprisingly for a boy who grew up close to two high-profile MLB teams, the New York Mets and Yankees, baseball was Pinto’s first love. He played shortstop, third base and a bit of centre field as a leadoff hitter. He also was a base-stealing threat.

“I had a bit more speed then,” Pinto said, apparently washed up in baseball before his 21st birthday.

From age eight to 15, Pinto imagined himself working toward a place on a college baseball team, and perhaps a pro career after that. Shane’s father, Frank, still plays men’s league baseball in New York and Shane’s sister, Brianna, was captain of the Fordham University softball team last year (and is returning to play this season as a Masters student). Judging by her stolen base stats, Brianna has speed to burn.

So, yeah, baseball remains big in the Pinto household. So is golf. Shane is proficient enough to shoot in the low 80s at the notorious Bethpage Black course -- the one that comes with a giant red warning sign that Bethpage is an “extremely difficult” track and only suitable for highly skilled golfers.

But for Pinto, hockey reigns supreme. It came to him while playing under-16 hockey in the US Premier Hockey League (USPHL) and watching Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins win the 2017 Stanley Cup (ironically, after beating Ottawa in the Eastern Conference Final).

The next season, 2017-18, with visions of Sid the Kid dancing in his head, Pinto exploded as a scorer at the under-18 level, with 34 goals and 65 points in 54 games. He was on his way. He thrived in the USHL and in two seasons with the University of North Dakota, Pinto produced 60 points in 61 college games, while winning 62 per cent of his faceoffs and establishing himself as one of the most complete two-way players in Division 1 hockey.

In May, Pinto was named University of North Dakota male athlete of the year, by which time he was already a member of the Senators, having signed a pro contract in April. Pinto was the 32nd overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, part of an active UND-Senators pipeline that includes Jake Sanderson, Pinto, Jacob-Bernard Docker and Tyler Kleven.

That a late-year-birth player (Nov. 12) like Pinto could be a polished, responsible college coach’s dream at age 19 and 20, needs to be emphasized.

“There are only so many players who come through college who did what he did,” UND head coach Brad Berry told the Grand
Forks Herald at the time of Pinto’s Hobey Baker nomination.

Pinto was NCHC player of the year and defensive player of the year. Let’s just admit they eventually ran out of awards to present to him.

Asked which stage of his hockey development was most significant in getting him to the NHL, from minor hockey to UND, Pinto thinks for a moment. He feels each step played a role in the journey.

“Going to prep school helped me grow up and mature as a person,” Pinto said. “The USHL got me on the radar of scouts; going to UND helped me grow as a player and tap into my potential. I felt if I could dominate at the college level I could be an NHL player one day.”

Pinto so dominated UND practices that coach Berry once told me in an interview he was a bit fearful of a teammate getting hurt by the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Pinto (he’s now an even 200 pounds).

“We do a lot of faceoff work with centres and wingers jumping in,” Berry said last season, “and I sometimes worry he’s going to rip someone’s arms off because for Shane, it’s for keeps, even in practice.”

In his dozen NHL games, Pinto chipped in seven points and looked like a great fit at season’s end between Ottawa’s rookie star Tim Stützle and veteran winger Connor Brown. That line will certainly get some looks in camp and the pre-season.

Albeit in a small sample size, Pinto’s 41 per cent faceoff percentage -- a significant dip from his dominant NCAA numbers -- demonstrated yet again how tough an adjustment it is from college to the NHL level against top, veteran centres.

Pinto will continue to work on faceoffs, skating, and on finding those little seams in the offensive zone to release that wicked shot. At UND, Pinto was known for setting up in the “Ovi-spot,” a right-hand shot on the left side of the circle.

Trent Mann, the Senators' chief amateur scout, says he has “no doubt” Pinto will grow into his game this season, including in the faceoff dot.

“Shane is intrinsically driven to get better,” Mann said.

“You know, he’s always bugging -- in a positive way -- development coaches and strength coaches, he wants to be better in all those areas. So, knowing Shane, he has done his homework, and he will know certain tendencies of players he played against.
And he’ll continue to learn. Obviously there’s many players he didn’t play against last year because of the way the divisions were set up. He’ll continue to learn, and pound away.

“He’s a bright kid. He understands where he is at with his path, and the experience he lacks. But the work ethic is going to be there and he’ll gain experience over time and learn tendencies of centres he goes up against and even linesmen and how they drop the puck. He’s detail-oriented and will continue to get better.”

At UND, Berry recalled a skinny kid who arrived at North Dakota as a sponge, wanting to learn, grow and develop strength, which happens more readily at the college level because there are fewer games and more time for the gym. Though he built a reputation as a shooter, especially on the power play (seven of his 15 goals came on the power play), Berry noted that Pinto had the maturity and patience to dish at the last second, if someone else was in a better spot.

On the phone this week, Pinto describes his playmaking this way: “not too flashy, but my IQ kind of takes over.”

Pinto thinks he can improve in all areas.

”My shot gets talked about, but I think it could get better still,” he said. “My playmaking could get better -- I’ve got to create more if I want to be successful, and I think that just comes with time and experience in the NHL.”

To me, Pinto flies under the radar a little bit as the rookie camp opens Wednesday leading to the main camp on Sept. 22. And low profile is not necessarily a bad thing.

Most of the chatter pre-camp is about Brady Tkachuk’s contract talks, and Year 2 of Stützle, who was strutting his stuff at the NHL media tour in Toronto this week. Forward prospect Egor Sokolov turned heads at development camp. Even  Sanderson is creating excitement in the Sens prospect pipeline with preparations for what figures to be a huge year for him at UND, perhaps his last before joining the Senators.

Pinto can quietly go about his business, knowing his time for making noise will come soon enough.

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